Narrative pedagogy 1: Focusing their attention

Humans have been telling stories since time immemorial. Narrative is built into our collective memory, and is part of what makes us human. Stories are compelling. Every story is a lesson, and every lesson can be a story. Teachers can learn a lot from the techniques writers use.

In this short series on what I will call 'narrative pedagogy'* I want to explore some of the storytelling techniques that can be adapted for use in education. Here's the first literary device: Interrupted Routine.

Students get bored easily in class. Boredom is often caused by routine. When nothing changes, there is not a lot to look forward to. Conversely, there is little that piques our attention more than a sudden disruption to routine. Interrupted Routine is one of the many narrative devices writers use to keep their readers or viewers interested.

This is how it works: You think you know your favourite character, and then suddenly, they behave out of character. The familiar pattern of behaviour is broken. Something happens which you least expect to happen. This shocks you, and you are now intrigued as to why things turned out differently to your expectations. It keeps you on your toes because now you are looking out for more shocks, and expecting the unexpected. Your focus has been sharpened.

In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the main protagonist is the hobbit Frodo, who with his best friend Sam, is on an epic quest to destroy the One Ring. At a critical point in the narrative, Frodo turns angrily on his best friend Sam and abandons him in the hostile territory of Mordor. This is a shock, because when everyone expected them to stay loyal to each other whatever was thrown at them, suddenly they are separated and everything looks bleak. It is only later that they are reunited, their friendship is resolved, and the reasons for Frodo's hostility are revealed.

How can this technique be used in teaching? Well, here's one example: Now and then I present a topic for my students to debate. It's usually quite an emotive one, about morality, ethics or some other fairly intractable issue. I divide them into two debating teams and ask them to elect speakers who can best present the group's arguments. Next I ask them to spend some time discussing and writing down their arguments on a sheet of paper so they can structure their rhetoric. With a few minutes to go I ask the two leaders to approach me with their crib sheets. I inspect the two sheets, and then I switch them. I give group A's sheet to group B's leader, and vice versa. Suddenly they are confused. I have done something they didn't expect and now both teams are wrong-footed. They now have 5 minutes to go away and rehearse the opposing team's arguments before they debate. Ultimately, both teams get to see all of the arguments, and the ensuing role play is often powerful, because they have focused keenly on the content.

Whatever techniques you use to try to maintain the interest of your students, we can all learn a lot from narrative devices. I would be very interested to hear from any teachers who have used this or a similar technique to keep students attention. Please share them in the comments box below.

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*Yes, I know that the term 'narrative pedagogy' has been used before, but in other contexts. My use signifies how storytelling devices can be applied to everyday pedagogy.

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Narrative pedagogy 1: Focusing their attention by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Dvora Kravitz said…
Thank you for describing these techniques. I will share them with teachers who are working with students with ADHD.
Pat Parslow said…
Not quite the same kind of narrative pedagogy, but I recently started using that term to describe the approach I use. Interestingly, it is with a similar set of subjects - social, legal and ethical aspects of systems engineering. I tell stories - many, varied, and all from experience. I use what one student described as "a surprising level of honesty" (it really worries me that they expect less than this) and take a critical pedagogical approach in presenting issues which challenge and hopefully encourage the students to want to make changes in the world.
It's not rocket science, obviously, but it is a big change from the typical engineering and maths type material my students are generally learning.
One of the Masters students on the module stopped me for a chat the other day, and was saying how glad he is that he gets to do SLEASE. During the conversation, I asked "So what do I teach?" - his slightly stunned reply was "Well, social, legal, ethical...", so I asked, "yes, but what do I actually tell you in class?"
"You don't tell us things, you point us in the direction of problems to solve"
"Oh, that's good", says I, "Wait, we haven't discussed this before, have we?" - "No", he answered.
"So what do you learn?" - I was genuinely interested.
"You teach us how to think, how to learn" he replied.

I am so glad I do the job I do - I honestly did wonder whether I had somehow briefed him before hand, and then forgotten. Or maybe my teaching aims had come up in a conversation with someone else. But I think it is better than that; without explicitly saying what my goals are, the students are figuring it out for themselves, and having the confidence to tell me about it.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Dvora - it would be interesting to hear how this pans out.
Steve Wheeler said…
That's the ticket Pat. I'm very much in the same mould. I really believe fervently that the best learning occurs when students solve problems themselves. It took me years before I was able to stand back, watch them struggle for their own understanding, and not intervene.
That's most certainly a brilliant way of teaching. I'm under the impression a lot of teachers actually use it subconsciously, but it most certainly isn't common knowledge - and it should.

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